As Mondrian himself and many others have proved, mathematical perfection has a finality which is often fatal to art. That was a danger that threatened Nicolas Poussin. What saved him was the reappearance, around 1650, of a side of his personality long suppressed: That of the peasant. The first painter who heeded Cezanne’s advice to “remake Poussin after nature” was Poussin himself.
Actually,Poussin had not altogether excluded nature; he had simply relegated it to the background. Usually he was satisfied to borrow it from Bellini or Titian a conventional diagram of tree trunks and cloud-swept skies. Yet even when he devoted special care to landscape, treating it with a delicate firmness that foreshadowed Corot, it remained a backdrop, a screen to close off the dramatic stage. Nature did not yet dare to step up to the footlights. It signaled to us indirectly, through the paintings’ subjects.
But in about 1650 nature in Poussin’s work rose from the status of “extra” to that of full-fledged protagonist. There was no abrupt reversal, no change of heart or mind; it is absurd to attribute it to purely external influences, such as the fact that Claude Lorrain had just become his neighbor. Poussin, as he said, was not changing in his affections. Quite the contrary, it was once again loyalty to the very values in which he had placed his faith that brought about this drastic transformation.
His values remained the gods, who were eternal, and order, which was geometrical. But according to the Greeks themselves, the gods were the children of the primal goddess, Gaea, that is, earth. Ultimately, they derived the fullness of their being from nature. When a young nobleman from France asked him what antique souvenir he might take back home, Poussin picked up a fistful of dust and, handing it to him, replied, “Take it, milord; this is antiquity.” Poussin wished to convey that the cult of the ancient gods leads to nature.
So does geometry, whose etymology yields the meaning “the measuring of earth.” Never was this truer than in the heyday of Cartesian thought. For, according to Descartes, space and geometry are one. Order, therefore, not only explains reality. It is reality. Measurement is earth. Poussin did not quite go so far. But, if we look at Orpheus and Eurydice with its many levels of landscape, or his Landscape of Ancient Rome, in which a compass drawn road wedges like an icebreaker into the virgin expanse of space, we see how geometry literally led him into nature.
How far that road made him travel can be assessed by comparing his new definition of painting with his earlier one. It was a long way indeed for a painter, who ten years earlier probably subscribed to the opinion of the satirist Lucian who said, “it is not valleys and mountains that I look for in paintings, it is men who act and think.”
Poussin, who had no intention of abjuring his previous position, thus found himself facing a new problem: how to reconcile figures and landscape, man and nature. To a medieval artist, this would not have posed a problem, for a common denominator existed between the two terms: God, from whom both creatures and creation derived their life. With the Renaissance, however, the tight theological order collapsed.
The link between man and nature being sundered, they went their respective ways, strangers to each other. Human action tended to
ld on a closed stage; creation retreated into the noncommittal, almost hostile silence of the still life. When man and nature now met, it was usually at the expense of the latter; and on the rare occasions when nature was not played down, the figures and the landscapes belonged to worlds so widely apart that the former seemed cut out and pasted on the latter.
Some artists had tried to close the gap, that is, to master the middle ground. One answer, stated by Paul Bril, the Flemish landscapist, had been to break it up into successive layers of planes, each delimited by figures, trees, hills, or mountains, and the sum of which composed space as a whole. Giorgione and Titian had achieved unity of the foreground and the background by subjecting them to a dominant tone, a uniform key.
The intransigent Poussin must have thought these solutions to be dilutions and compromises. His own bridge was mathematics, the common denominator between human action and landscape. It was not a new belief. The Stoics had held the theory that the same law governed both men and nature. For Poussin, this meant both physical quantity and moral quality: size and greatness. An abstract order might serve to define both human and natural relations.
In Poussin’s later works, and particularly the numerous versions of the Holy Family, the underlying order of the human groups is emphasized by the geometric clarity of the architectural setting, which also brings out the structure of the landscape. The freestanding columns, pyramids, obelisks, and monumental amphoras which recur so often in Poussin’s paintings are materializations of the sphere, cone and cylinder upon which, according to Cezanne, everything in nature is modeled.
John Haber:Still, Poussin sees the ancient world as an imagined world, an active world, and already a fallen world. In the Renaissance, Christian scenes often took place against pagan incomprehension or Roman ruins. Poussin, in contrast, loves the ruins at least as much as Biblical prophecy. Foolishly or not, people go about their business in the background, and much the same myths as ever proliferate in front. Diogenes the Cynic is as close as the paintings come to a philosopher and a hero. In his self-portrait of around 1650, Poussin looks like a cynic himself—or as Anthony Blunt argued, a stoic—amid the almost abstract geometry of picture frames, their backs turned to the viewer.
A touch of cynicism may explain why Poussin lost patience so quickly with career rivalries in Paris. Back in Rome after just three years, he deepens the landscapes. Finally, in his sixties, with pain in his fingers and painting a struggle, the limitations only increase his economy and add to his technique. These darker works are harder for the eye to navigate—and sometimes hard for even scholars to decipher fully—but more vibrant in naturalism and feeling. As ever, stoicism comes without violence, anger, or loss of sympathy. Storms gather, but they do not break.
Abstraction and photography have further cemented the connection of painting to the imagination. Only Sunday painters set up easels in Central Park anyway. However, America has always invested the land with myths of decline and fall. It has passed through the Framer’s battles between central and agricultural economics, through the advance west, and through the sprawl and disappointments of today. Once the frontier leads only to globalization, what else is left but the imagination? The first great paintings of The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole, preceded America’s ambitions abroad—and the latest, by Ed Ruscha, may well have followed their collapse.
In myths like these, nature serves as something left behind, but also something people are fated to reclaim. Poussin understood that arc, but he did not romanticize it as tragedy or comedy. The curators—including Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre—stress Poussin’s magic and all but dismiss his erudition, but can one ever really separate the two? Between observation and idealism, he creates a space for at once rationality and ambiguity. Human instinct comes and goes, but the imagination resumes its sway. Read More:http://www.haberarts.com/poussin.htm